Why Schrödinger’s Rapist Is Really Pascal’s Rapist

Editor’s Note: This is the first in what very well might become a series of op-ed pieces for SkepDirt. Skepdigger is stepping out of the “reporter” comfort zone with this, and all of us at SkepDirt wish nothing but good fortune upon this endeavor.

As we enter the fourth year of the Schrödinger’s Rapist meme, this opiner would like to take a few minutes to ruminate on its origin, its implications, and its inaccuracies.

In A Dirtshell: Schrödinger’s Cat

Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) was an accomplished quantum physicist. He originated the famous “Schrödinger’s Cat” thought experiment, in which an unseen cat is considered to be both alive and dead until observed.

“Schrödinger’s Rapist” is the audience, and the antagonist, of a hugely popular guest blog entry on  Kate Harding’s now-defunct blog. In it, “Miss LonelyHearts” (real name Phaedra Starling, real real name unknown) describes her fear of being raped, her rationale for that fear, the steps she feels obligated to take to not be raped, and the reasons why men should change their behaviors to accommodate the fears women have.

“Schrödinger’s Rapist”: Old And Busted

The Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment was used by Dr. Schrödinger to demonstrate the absurdity of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum entanglement, which states that a quantum state can’t be determined, and in fact can be thought of being in every possible quantum state, until it is observed. To apply it properly to the scenario Miss LonelyHearts presents, the man must be unobserved and be both a rapist and not a rapist.

This, as Dr. Schrödinger’s thought experiment shows, is absurd. It is also inapplicable; there is someone who knows the quantum-rape state of the man, and that is the man himself. The probability wave of the state of the man has already collapsed, whether the woman is aware of it or not.

Even if the man’s quantum-rape state is defined from the observations of the woman, the comparison to Schrödinger’s Cat is inapplicable. The woman can, indeed, observe the man. As with the cat, there are observable characteristics of the subject that the observer can observe to determine in which state the subject is. A live cat has a hearbeat, and purrs, and will probably rub against the observer’s pant cuff. A dead cat has, and does, none of these things. Likewise with a rapist and a non-rapist. There are certain characteristics that a rapist exhibits that a non-rapist does not. Miss LonelyHearts mentions some, and for that this opiner applauds her. More can be found here.

Back on topic, in order for Miss LonelyHeart’s reference to Schrödinger’s Cat to be applicable, her apologetic would have to be “No one knows if you are a rapist or not, so I can consider you both a rapist and a not-rapist until I look at you.” This is definitely not what she is saying.

What’s Better?

If comparing a rapist to Schrödinger’s Cat is inapplicable, then what is a better analogy?

In A Dirtshell: Pascal’s Wager

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was an accomplished mathematician, physicist, and Christian apologist. His name is also much easier to type than Schrödinger’s because it doesn’t have an ö in it.

Among his most famous accomplishments is known as Pascal’s Wager, which starts with the supposition that God’s existence cannot be known and concludes that it is nevertheless more rational to believe that God exists than to believe the opposite. Pascal’s Wager was revolutionary in a number of ways: it marked the first formal use of “decision theory”, it broke new ground in probability theory, and paved the way for future philosophical schools of thought like voluntarism and existentialism. But enough paraphrasing Wikipedia.

“Pascal’s Rapist”: New Hotness

What Miss LonelyHearts’ actual apologetic in her blog post is “I don’t know if you are a rapist or not. I have more to lose by assuming you are not a rapist than if I assume that you are a rapist,  so I am going to believe that you are a rapist.”

Compare to Pascal’s Wager: “I don’t know if there is a God or not. I have more to gain by believing that there is one than if I believe there isn’t one, so I am going to believe that there is a God.” At this level, they are clearly in step with each other.

Probability Analysis

Pascal’s Wager has a concept of “infinite gain” (i.e., heaven) that Miss LonelyHearts’ unknown-rapist scenario cannot match. Every gain or loss in life is finite, so it’s not as immediately clear which decision is more advantageous. A fairly decent decision matrix can be approximated, however.

To figure out this decision matrix, three things must be determined ahead of time:

  1. The probability of each event occurring or thing existing.
  2. Whether each thing leads to a gain (positive) or a loss (negative).
  3. The magnitude of each gain or loss.

In Pascal’s Wager, the decision matrix entry for “believe in God, and God exists” was positive infinity, which made all the other entries in the matrix irrelevant. Not so here.

The probability of a random man being a rapist is given in Miss Lonelyhearts’ blog entry as one in sixty, but that’s not quite right, because it counts all sexual assault and not just rape. Sexual assault includes everything from sexual harassment to rape, so the actual number of rapists will be far lower.

(As an aside, Miss LonelyHearts’ claim that since one in sixty men are rapists means that she “can assure” the general populace that “at least one [of the men you know] is [a rapist]” reminds this opiner of the old Bazooka Joe comic that stated “One in four people is Chinese! If you have three friends who aren’t Chinese, it’s you!“)

Let’s say that one in sixty is an accurate number. That means 59 out of 60 men are not rapists. Furthermore, rapists do not rape every woman they see. The average person comes within arm’s reach of about 150 people a day. That’s roughly 54,000 a year. If the average rapist rapes ten people during their prime raping years of ages 17 to 67, they come into contact with 2,700,000 people in that time… of which they rape ten. So any random encounter with a person has a 0.00037% chance of being with a rapist.

Now we have the probability of the thing occurring. What is the gain or loss in each case? The loss in the “don’t treat like a rapist, but is a rapist” case is subjective but can be intense. The loss in the “don’t treat like a rapist, and is not a rapist” is actually a gain, as nothing bad happens at worst and true love can happen at best. The loss in “treat like rapist, and is a rapist” is the same as the gain: zero. The loss in “treat like a rapist, but is not a rapist” can also be quite large, as true love is missed and the person who treats everyone like a potential rapist is doomed to a life of embroidery and cats.

The matrix looks like this:

Is A Rapist (R) Is Not A Rapist (~R)
Treat Like Rapist (T) Gain/Loss: 0 Loss: 99.99963% Chance of Cat Lady
Don’t Treat Like Rapist (~T) Loss: 0.00037% Chance Of Rape Gain: 99.99963% Chance Of Love

It’s clear from this matrix that the only way to gain is to treat random people as if they are not rapists.

The counterargument to this is that being raped is very bad – it’s so bad, in fact, that the loss suffered from it outweighs the gain to be had by finding true love. For that to be true, being raped would have to be TWO HUNDRED AND SEVENTY THOUSAND TIMES as bad as finding true love is good. This opiner will spare the reader a tally mark of how many that is, and also let the reader decide for themselves whether it’s worth the risk or not.

3 Responses to Why Schrödinger’s Rapist Is Really Pascal’s Rapist

  1. Peezus says:

    Great piece.
    Re: Treat like rapist (T) / Is rapist (R) : Gain/loss: 0

    It could be argued that treating a rapist like a rapist is no guarantee of a neutral outcome.
    A determined rapist is unlikely to be deterred by a potential victim’s attitude towards them.
    If the circumstances permit, a rape will happen.
    In fact, if it was just a latent rapist who was not intent on rape that day, an overt display of suspicion towards them might even provoke an attack that otherwise might never have occurred.

    • skepdigger says:

      Thanks for your kind review!

      This opiner agrees that the best a woman can hope for in the T+R scenario is the neutral score given in the matrix. The conclusion stands that the only attitude that leads to a potential gain is that of not treating strangers like rapists.

      Keep reading SkepDirt!

  2. Fortis says:


%d bloggers like this: